Silence of the champ

Silence of the champ

Silence of the champ

By deciding not to fight his case, Lance Armstrong is trying to tell us something, writes George Vecsey.

Now he is for the ages, in his own Lance way. Lance Armstrong has joined the legion of the lost, the great athletes who were barred or exiled for sins admitted or charged or suspected.

Armstrong, who on Thursday ended his fight against charges by the US Anti-Doping Agency that he used performance-enhancing drugs, now belongs in that pantheon of stars who had to go away but never really did.

They haunt our psychic memories of who they were, how they excelled, what they could have been. They clog up the sporting record books with their asterisks and their defaults and their suspensions and their white-out accomplishments.

He is right up there with Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson of baseball and Sherman White and Ralph Beard of basketball and Ben Johnson and Marion Jones of track and field.

They were among the best of their times, but somebody had something on all of them, leaving behind the awe and disillusionment of people who saw them at their best, their glorious best.

By declining to stage any more battles to maintain his innocence, Armstrong is issuing a nonofficial admission of that ultimate legal admission: not mea culpa but no mas. Ultimately, his lawyers must have told him it was over.

Did he do “it”? Let’s put it this way (and I say this as somebody who covered some of his Tours de France, and knows and likes some of Armstrong): he was the best cyclist of his time, in maybe the dirtiest sport in existence.

For seven straight years, he beat everybody up the mountains and through the long valleys and around the frantic circuits of the time trials of the only race that mattered to him and his master plan. Win the Tour and you gain immortality.

A great champion like Greg LeMond could witness Armstrong barreling up some Alpine pass and insist that no human could possibly climb at that rate without doping. LeMond and some friends were righteous in their rage and suspicion.

Yet other cyclists were testing positive even under the half-hearted efforts of the world cycling body.

Was Armstrong using some more potent drug, or using it more often? I doubt that. My guess is that cycling has been the ultimate level playing ground we all say we want for sports.

It was also a lethal business, by the way: Young Tour aspirants were falling off their machines, quite dead, because their altered blood was the thickness of tomato bisque.

The ones who really did not want to dope went away. Check out the recent essay “How to Get Doping Out of Sports,” by Jonathan Vaughters, in The New York Times Sunday Review.

Vaughters is a former Tour cyclist who is now running a proclaimed clean programme that is competing in the Tour, in a different and vastly more supervised age.

The one name you will not find in that essay is Lance Armstrong, who was the straw boss of the team during Vaughters’ short time around the Tour. Make no mistake: That personal history is the subtext for that essay, for Vaughters’ admission of doping.

Armstrong did all the hard training that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens did, for example – dominating his sport the way they dominated theirs. He was combative like them but also charismatic, with a cause far more compelling than theirs: as a survivor of a lethal cancer, he has a foundation that fights cancer.

I am told by doctors that if he did take illegal cycling drugs, or even recreational drugs, they did not give him cancer, and also that his struggle with cancer and use of cancer drugs did not lead to his later dominance, except possibly for the weight loss that allowed him to handle the hills better. But he had always been a potential Tour champion.

As Armstrong kept winning the Tour, most people covering the sport were not tracking the whispers and the circumstantial evidence. In 2004, an Irish journalist based in England named David Walsh and a French journalist, Pierre Ballester, issued a book called (in French) “LA Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong.” Armstrong’s lawyers have made sure the book was never published in English, but I can read French (with the help of a dictionary) and was tantalised by some details.

Maybe the most telling segment concerns an Irish masseuse named Emma O’Reilly (still have not met her), who was Armstrong’s personal kneader during the 1999 Tour. (She was also asked to make a mysterious run from Spain to France, to deliver some mysterious material across the border.)

During the 1999 Tour, O’Reilly said, her workload had been lightened when one cyclist – the aforementioned Vaughters – dropped out of the race. That left her more time to minister to Armstrong and one other rider.

On the team bus, she claimed, she heard several top team officials fretting about a positive test by Armstrong for steroids. They were in a panic, saying: “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” Their solution was to get one of their compliant doctors to issue a prescription for a steroid-based ointment to combat saddle sores. If Armstrong had saddle sores, O’Reilly said, she would have known.

In “Confidentiel,” O’Reilly quotes Armstrong as telling her, “Now Emma you know enough to bring me down.” (Page 207.)

That backdated doctor’s note in 1999 nullified the finding of steroids. Lance rode on. Five years later, during an early stage in Belgium, I referred to a “positive test” in 1999.

One of Armstrong’s top advisers sidled up to me in a prerace staging area and said, in unmistakably legal terms, that a nullified result was not a positive test. I granted the legal distinction but always remembered the urgent and specific way that message was delivered.

That same time in Belgium, Armstrong was browbeating confidants to forget things they might have heard. I know some people who hate him for the tight way he ran the team, and for the threats they said he made.

Over the years some associates said Armstrong had doped, or admitted doping. My position was that the sport was administering tests and that other cyclists were failing them. Got proof? I asked. Nobody really did.

Eventually the new scrutiny and other suits forced cycling to tighten up. It was too dirty to go on like that. Two disgraced champions sang on Armstrong: Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton.

The US Anti-Doping Agency became, as the saying goes, interested in Armstrong. And finally, that most loyal and longstanding outrider of them all, George Hincapie – Big George – was forced to give testimony. Omerta goes only so far.

Armstrong now says he will not play their little game, satisfy their vendetta. He denies all. The world knows he won seven straight Tours, he says, and that is good enough for him.

Of all the legion of the lost, Armstrong most compares to Rose, who had a swagger and a crude charm and made his sport come alive.

I still like some of Pete, too, but he did his complicated image a terrible disservice by not cutting his losses early and admitting gambling on his sport. His hits were enough, he felt, but he was wrong, dead wrong.

Armstrong suggests that his seven Tours – his open superiority – will sustain him. Now he pays his lawyers and leaves the race maintaining his innocence.

I always left the subject of innocence to the tests, to the authorities, to the labs. However, by his departure, I think Lance is trying to tell us something.